The melody of the interview

THERE IS A MUSICALITY to all interviews, big and small. The tempo will change and the conversation may explore various tones, but a good discussion is one where the rhythm never really breaks, and phrases respond to each other harmoniously. Even a vivid debate, or a tough negotiation, can become a pleasant and fulfilling experience, when different people playing different tunes are brought into accord by some form of orchestration. Gisele Khoury is a renowned talk show host who has interviewed, most lately for BBC Arabic, hundreds of statesmen and other personalities, touching upon difficult topics with a keen ear for what she calls the interview’s “melody”. 

Gisele, why is this rhythmicity so important? How does it help the host coax a guest into opening up more than he/she would do in a discordant interaction? 

I think an interview, by nature, is a show that aims both to inform and to entertain. We often use the word “performance,” and that performance can be stronger or weaker at a certain moment. Doing an interview is like the theatre, or giving a concert: sometimes, you feel that your performance is flagging and that you are losing energy, and can only respond by intensifying your own efforts – your concentration surges. On TV or on the radio your audience is not in front of you, but you’re nonetheless in a struggle to retain its attention. You’re in competition with the remote control.

Finding the right melody and rhythm is also about working the vibes between you and your guest. If you really want to get at what’s interesting, you will have to use diplomacy, impatience, a more personal touch, and a mix of soft and tough questions. You’ll move from one tone to the other in response to your guest’s reactions. Isn’t that like composing a musical piece?

What are the instruments you can use to create that musicality you seek? 

I use a lot of psychology. For example, I can sense that I have gone too far with a guest; after that I will always find a wall between my questions and the answers I seek. In such a case, it is up to me to find another way in, or to dismantle the wall with softer questions and a more seductive approach.

How do you prepare and condition yourself to perform, and get the best out of an interview?

First of all, it is important to note that there should be no surprise on TV. At least I need to be fully prepared. So I study the issues, I think through and rehearse my questions, I anticipate the possible answers, and I always keep key documents at hand. It’s a critical mistake to make a contentious assertion without being able to immediately back it up.

And I have my routine. Before a significant interview I make sure I get my hours sleep, I eat very light, I keep my energy, and I need ten minutes of silence to focus before I go live. On top of that, one tablet of dark chocolate is highly recommended.

Illustration credit: Cantando! / licensed by CC. 

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